by Terry Hong
True confession: A few years ago, our mutual friend, the writer Marie Myung-Ok Lee (not a Bloomer—Marie had a first-ever YA fiction multi-book deal with a major publisher in her 20s) made me sisters with debut novelist Angie Kim. Lee was presenting on a panel at one of those mega-conferences, and she snuck Kim and me in by claiming family status. Kim mentioned she might be working on a novel herself, which Lee enthusiastically confirmed and insisted I would have to read it. Publishing can be a tiny world… because Kim’s Miracle Creek (Sarah Crichton Books) landed in my audiobooks assignment queue for one of the magazines for which I regularly review. And then this Bloom-ing opportunity appeared in my inbox, providing the serendipitous chance to reclaim our sisterhood!
Yep, all the hype about Miracle Creek is true. Starred reviews, must-read lists, and glowing praise mean Kim is also quite the sought-after, “It”-author. Which also means sisterhood came in handy in getting on her overbooked schedule!
Welcome to Miracle Creek, Virginia, home of the “miracle submarine” offering HBOT—hyperbaric oxygen therapy—believed to treat such conditions as autism and infertility. Despite the many promised “miracles,” the venture proves anything but: a mysterious explosion kills two patients and seriously injures others. Elizabeth Ward, whose young son Henry died in the fire, now stands trial for murder; she’s painted as a desperate mother raising a special-needs child who finally just snapped. What might seem initially obvious will, of course, prove otherwise, as victims, perpetrators, liars, and seekers peel away the layers of what happened. Combining resonating family drama, some of today’s most salient hot topics (immigration, childhood illnesses, alternative medical therapies, parental challenges) into an edge-of-your-seat courtroom drama, Miracle Creek indeed proves miraculous.
Terry Hong: So tell the truth… did you ever imagine this kind of phenomenal success with your book?
Angie Kim: I think “fantasized” might be a better word than “imagined.” Yes, I hoped and dreamed, of course (don’t we all?), but in the same way that you hope and dream you’ll win the lottery, not in the way that you think it will actually happen. It’s been an amazing ride, and I’m so excited for what’s still to come!
TH: You’re just back home from a heavy, heavy travel tour. Three best moments? Three worst? Biggest takeaway?
AK: Three best moments: 1) Being on stage with Scott Turow at The Loft’s Wordplay festival in Minneapolis. The moderator asked for “opening statements” (haha, since we’re both litigators), and Scott said, “I want to talk about Angie,” and proceeded to tell the huge crowd about Miracle Creek and how much he loved it and why. I sat on stage with the biggest grin on my face and blinked really fast, trying not to cry. Later in the program, when it came time for our “closing statements,” I paid tribute to Scott and thanked him for everything, from being the father of the contemporary legal thriller genre to his amazing generosity in being willing to read my novel when it was still an unpublished manuscript, and the audience and I gave him the biggest ovation, and he reached out and grabbed my hand. It makes me tear up just thinking about it now.
TH: Well, geez, who wouldn’t be getting weepy over that kind of love?!
AK: I didn’t mean to go on for so long! I’ll be shorter with the other stuff. Best moment 2: being in conversation with Julie Lythcott-Haims, who’s been a college and law school friend since I was 18. She’s a huge inspiration to me, and I love her books (NYT bestselling How to Raise an Adult and Real American). Best moment 3: meeting readers with whom I’d connected, especially the super bookstagrammer Jordan who started a hashtag campaign for #miraclecreekarmy, and other bookstagrammers who’ve been amazing supporters.
Worst moments: No real bad moments. Just generally being very tired and looking at my face in the morning and thinking how tired I feel and dry my face is.
Biggest takeaway: As much as I complain about how my kids give me grief and how my messy my house is (hmmm, I don’t really have any complaints about my husband, other than not throwing away his tea bags), I really really missed being away and am so happy to be home. I’ve decided that I prefer short trips to ONE place, rather than trying to combine a whole bunch of cities on one trip. So, for the rest of the tour, that’s how I’m doing it: short trips to one to two cities, then back home.
TH: Speaking of being tired (and your author pic makes you look like you’re 29!)… can we talk about your Bloom-ing in your 50s as a writer? You were a high-power trial lawyer before your debut. What was the impetus to pivot careers? And do you think you’ll ever go back to lawyering?
AK: I just turned 50 on April 18, two days after my book’s publication date. So I guess I technically BLOOMed in my 40s?
TH: Yes—you lawyer types are so exacting!
AK: Don’t make fun of lawyers! (Just kidding—I make fun of lawyers all the time). In any event, I was a trial lawyer in my 20s, but I’ve actually had two other careers since then. I left the law and became a management consultant at McKinsey for several years, and then I cofounded a dot-com/software startup with two McKinsey friends. We were preparing for an IPO when the market bombed, and I was pregnant with my first child when we had to lay off 400+ employees and sold the company. That was 2001, and I’ve been a stay-at-home mom with my three kids since that time. I started writing short essays and fiction about nine years ago.
The impetus to pivot careers has always been to find something I loved to do on a day-to-day basis. As a trial lawyer, I loved being in the courtroom, but unfortunately, that’s only about 5 percent of being a litigator. The rest of the time, I was pretty miserable and not having much fun. So I set out to find something else that I could be actually happy doing.
TH: As you started writing in 2001, when/how did you know you were A Writer? And what were some of the most important lessons you learned as a “mature” writer?
AK: I don’t think I thought of myself as A Writer (and certainly didn’t introduce myself in that way) until after I sold my novel and had a publisher. Even now, it feels really strange thinking of myself as A Writer or An Author. I still think, I’m a mom who’s at home with my kids. I’m still getting used to the idea.
I’m not sure that there’s anything specific to (or different about) being a “mature” writer, other than that as someone who’s had other careers, I might have more of a long-term perspective. The biggest difference between me and some of the younger debut authors I’ve come to know is that some of them have MFAs and they’re more enmeshed in the literary world. They’re more connected with other writers, having done writing residencies and the like. I’m coming in as more of an outsider, so I’ve had to try to do more to get to know the literary community.
The other thing about being older when I started my first novel is that it contains a lot more of the different phases of my life. My novel contains three strands of my life that I’ve woven into a literary courtroom drama narrative: my experience as a preteen and teen Asian immigrant, my trial law experience, and my experience as the mother of children with chronic illnesses (although, thankfully, all three are totally fine and healthy now). These span multiple decades and inform characters of different generations, which is something that reviewers and readers alike have responded to. I don’t think I could have written that as a younger novelist, certainly, or even at my age now if I’d started writing at a younger age (because I would have probably put the Korean immigrant teenager experience into an earlier book and gotten it out of my system, so to speak).
TH: So those personal parallels you wove together to make your Miracle—WOW, did you use that “write what you know” adage so brilliantly! How did you decide where the real-life and fiction could/would intersect?
AK: I felt much more free taking my own experience as a Korean immigrant child and shaping that for the novel. Much of the Korean immigrant family’s story in the novel is lifted straight from my parents’ and my experience. The stories about parenting were the ones I felt much more cautious about, because they’re not just my stories, but those of my family and my kids, who are too young to meaningfully consent to their inclusion in a public forum. The parenting stories are definitely fiction, with characters and backstories that I took from multiple people I’ve met in real life (including my own family) and conflated, changed, and mixed in different ways until no character resembled any one person. I think that helped me to ensure that the stories in Miracle Creek belong, in essence, to everyone.
TH: Have your parents read the book? With all the autobiographical elements, especially the immigration experience, they must have recognized parts of themselves in your pages. How did they react?
AK: They did read the book! I gave them one advance reader copy to share, and my dad read it first, flying through it in two days. My mom, on the other hand, started reading it but stopped and didn’t finish it for a few months at least. I was a little annoyed, I have to admit, and wondering why that was, if she didn’t like it (but, of course, like a sullen, bratty child, I didn’t ask her; I just brooded about it). One day, she called me and said that she’d just finished it and loved it. She was crying, and she apologized for all that happened when we first came to the U.S. I told her that it was fiction, that she was being silly, but, of course, we both knew that the emotional core was lifted straight from our own experience. It’s been very cathartic for me and for us.
TH: You’re crying, aren’t you? Because I am …
AK: NOT AT ALL.
Okay, I was definitely tearing up. I actually started sobbing during the reading and discussion on the night of my publication. My parents were in the audience, and discussing the Korean immigrant strand, I started crying so badly that I had to stop.
TH: You’ve intricately built multiple POVs to create almost a Rashomon-eque structure—until the final truth is revealed. How did you logistically keep all the narratives straight?
AK: You should see the walls of my tiny nook where I write—it’s literally a closet, with a ceiling sloped so low that I have to sit on the floor. I use a Korean table for my laptop and keyboard. The floor is covered with timelines and chronologies, color-coded by character, with arrows and huge crossed-out Xs where I’ve realized that something is inconsistent with something I’ve said before. I’m not an outliner, but for this novel, I had to have a loose, skeletal outline. I’d write a few chapters, then realize the outline was totally wrong, so I’d redo the outline, then write some more, then redo the outline again, and so forth. This iterative process with the outline helped me to try to have the structure in mind.
TH: Did you know from the beginning that your first book would be a murder mystery? And you obviously have a soft spot for Scott Turow. Who else inspired you?
AK: Yes, on murder mystery. And, yes, I adore Scott Turow and his novels, but I think our sensibilities are quite different. The books I had by my side the whole time I was writing were Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River (in fact, my title is an homage of sorts to that—Miracle Creek, Mystic River!), Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods, Russell Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter, and Chris Bohjalian’s Midwives, which is also a courtroom drama.
TH: Getting back to that outsider feeling you mentioned earlier… so we met through our lovely buddy, Marie Lee, another fabulous Korean American writer. And I see a number of other lauded Korean American writers singing your praises everywhere—Alexander Chee, R.O. Kwon, etc. Do you think some sort of KYOPO [ethnic Koreans who live outside of Korea] renaissance might be going on?
AK: I DO think that there’s a KYOPO renaissance that’s going on, and I love it! Alex endorsed my book and Reese [R.O. Kwon] has been amazing in recommending my book, and some of the reviewers of my book have also had Korean ties! Jung Yun, the author of the brilliant Shelter, for example, reviewed my book for the Washington Post, and Krys Lee, who is based in Seoul, reviewed my book for the New York Times! 2018 was an epic year for Korean writers, fiction and nonfiction alike: Alex Chee, Nicole Chung, R.O. Kwon, Jimin Han, Crystal Hana Kim—so many amazing books by Korean American authors! I’m so happy to be part of this inspiring movement!
TH: I listened to Miracle Creek, by the way, which I was so happy to learn has a bonus interview at book’s end with your editor Sarah Crichton. And so nice to hear YOUR voice! You mentioned that the music included in the recording is by your middle son—and that it was an eighth-grade project of his! HOLY MOLY! How did that piece become part of your audiobook?
AK: I love that my son’s composition is part of my novel! So my middle son is a pianist and composer, and he composed this beautiful, haunting piece, “Stormy Waves,” for his middle school’s talent show. (I suspect that he wanted to win because my oldest son, also a composer and musician, won the talent show two years prior with his own piano composition!). I loved “Stormy Waves” so much and it really went with the mood of my novel. When I was editing in early 2018, I listened to it continuously, on a loop. When we were discussing the audiobook, I sent the music file to my audiobook producer and asked him to consider using it for the intro music, which I know some books have. He agreed that it fit the book’s mood and tone very well, and commissioned a recording at a studio, with my son playing the piece. We just got the copyright registration in the mail, and he’s really excited!
TH: Dare I ask? Has Hollywood come calling yet??!!
AK: I can’t share anything, but suffice it to say that stuff is happening. My kids are impressed, which is saying something.
TH: And the inevitable… what can we eager readers expect next from you?
AK: I’m itching to get a real start on my next novel. I’ve only written a few scenes, but hopefully, I’ll get to really delve into it. It’s about a biracial family with a nonverbal ten-year-old son and 17-year-old fraternal twins, who were the main characters in a short story I wrote called “Buried Voice,” which won the Wabash Prize for Fiction. Charles Baxter was the judge, and he called the story “weird,” which I love and took as a compliment, so I’m really excited!
Homepage photo credit: Tim Coburn. Office photo provided by author.